Editorial: Clear options for Middlebury

After 20-plus years of intermittent discussion and an occasional vote, Middlebury residents will have a clear choice this Town Meeting Day on three options for their municipal building:
• To keep it as it is, do constant repairs and inevitably face another vote in the not too distant future to replace the current building;
• To raze the current municipal building and build new on that site at an estimated cost of $6 million to $10 million, or to renovate at a cost of $2 million to $4.5 million, all paid with taxpayer dollars;
• To approve the select board’s proposed plan to partner with the college, raze the existing building and create a park in its place, to build a new municipal building on the opposite side of the roundabout where the Osborne House currently is, and build a new gymnasium on Creek Road between the high school and middle school — all at a cost to taxpayers of $2 million.
There are advantages to each proposal:
• In the short term, staying with the status quo puts the least tax burden on residents. It’s not smart business because you postpone needed repairs that will quickly end up consuming tax dollars in maintenance and still have to be replaced a few years down the road, but it is the least costly plan for the next year or two.
• A petition circulated by Michael and Judy Olinick asks town residents if they would prefer to keep the municipal building located on the existing site and either have the building replaced (and built new) or renovated.
As an ideal solution, building new on this site was what the steering committee and the finance committee tried to make happen during 2012 and into 2013. They couldn’t do it for less than $8 million, and that would raise the town tax rate by 8 cents. To its credit, the selectboard set a benchmark of a two-cent increase on the tax rate as a ballpark limit not to exceed.
Still, there is no denying that building new on that site was everyone’s first option, if it could be done affordably.
Renovating is an option, but the professional estimate was $4.5 million, and you still end up with inefficient building—in term of energy and continual maintenance—and it remains an eyesore. Nothing in that $4.5 million redoes the exterior to any significant degree.
• The selectboard’s proposal has one significant advantage: It delivers a lot for a small price to taxpayers. Town residents will get an energy-efficient, cost-efficient (in terms of maintenance), compact building designed for work expediency. Because it is located next to the library there are opportunities for efficiencies (shared parking, shared meeting rooms, shared public restrooms, for example.) That’s good value for taxpayers. It’s being smart with public money.
The proposal also delivers a new gymnasium in a location ideally situated between the middle and high schools, potentially solving a problem with the old American Legion building and creating student locker/restroom facilities that are sorely needed and would likely cost taxpayers even more down the road if this were not an option. (See related story in this issue.) Again, that represents a good value for taxpayers.
Middlebury residents end up with a $6.5 million deal for $2 million — and both are new buildings that hopefully will last 50 to 75 years without significant need for repair. For $2 million, that’s buying a lot of value.
The disadvantages of each option are perhaps more complex to foresee:
• Doing nothing doesn’t last for long. It’s not a viable option for more than a year or two, then we’ll be right back where we are today. The building needs a significant overhaul, soon. As a town we’ve kicked the can down the road for 20 years; itis time to make a decision.
• Cost is the disadvantage to proposal to rebuild on the current site or do extensive renovations. To spend millions renovating and still ending up with a building that is an eyesore, has inefficient workspace inside and would next to impossible to heat efficiency, seems like a waste of effort when there are better options.
To build new would be great, but how rich are taxpayers feeling?
The question for town residents is this: If the town’s math is right, and the Olinicks and others are underestimating costs because they don’t like the other alternative, are taxpayers willing to spend $6 million to $8 million to build new on that site? Will they settle for remodeling at $4.5 million and continue to see an inefficient building waste fuel and resources, nor provide a workspace conducive to the task?
• The disadvantage of the proposed site adjacent to the Ilsley Library is the space crunch. There won’t be a lot of lawn. Parking will need creative solutions. That said, a new, expansive park will be created just a couple 100 feet away; and parking is a problem only for those unwilling to walk a block or two—and that’s almost embarrassing to admit. When the biggest complaint is having to walk two blocks for parking (people in big cities walk far more routinely), then we truly have our priorities confused.
Any comparative analysis of the options is more subjective.
In a nutshell, here’s our thinking:
The town has studied the issue for two decades, conducted surveys, held community gatherings and workshops, and taken polls. Throughout those years, the two common denominators have location and cost. The community has been firm in its desire to keep the municipal building located in the downtown because of the symbolic presence of the town hall. It belongs in the town center.
Town taxpayers have always been sensitive to costs. And just two years ago, Middlebury’s high taxes have been the subject of intense scrutiny at town meeting.
For the first time in 20 years, the selectboard’s proposal meets both criteria. If done well, the architecture could be exciting and captivating, the gymnasium used for multiple purposes, and the town would enjoy a vibrant new green right in the heart of downtown — a value that has been greatly underappreciated in this discussion.
When considering the options, the best bang for the taxpayer’s dollar is the selectboard’s proposal—by far. Long-term and short-term, this is a proposal taxpayers are not likely to see again.
That said, we are concerned that the current rush to construction will not yield a building on the proposed site that meets the public’s expectations. The first quick sketch has had little public feedback, little discussion. For this writer, it sits too close to the curb, blocking a more expansive view of the Ilsley Library; it’s angular and blocky, rather than following the curve of the road. I know nothing of architecture, so no offense meant, but aesthetically it’s not to my eye. Before this 20-year discussion ends, let’s at least spend a few minutes of shared conversation about what these long-held dreams might look like or why they must look a certain way.
Still, the current financial proposal is a wise move for Middlebury residents. Let’s hold the vote and determine the public’s desire. Then, let’s give ourselves until the spring of 2015 before we start digging, if that turns out to be the public choice. With that time, we can then be more deliberative and collaborative as we design a project to satisfy public preferences.
Angelo S. Lynn

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